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Toying with toys: The scrabble story

Sukumar Mukhopadhyay  |  New Delhi 

In my long tenure in Customs and Excise I have had toys on many occasions but of course not for playing with them but to classify them. Now that the same issue has come up in respect of "scrabble", which recently has hit the headlines in the media, I cannot resist the temptation of telling the toy-stories. Let me begin with scrabble first.

I asked my grand daughter if 'scrabble' is a toy or a game. Without batting an eyelid (and obviously without reading the Supreme Court judgement) she replied: "It is a game." In our times we never heard such innovations. Thank God, we were satisfied only with wooden replica of horse and with marbles. Now the children have roomful of toys, dolls, games and what not! But they can reach a conclusion fast while I had to do the same after reading an extremely interesting and long Supreme Court judgement and consulting at every point our huge and heavy Central Excise Tariff.

Scrabble has become a news after the judgement came out in the Pleasantime Products case. This has elaborately explained the difference between toys, puzzles and games. The manufacturer declared them as toys and puzzles falling under the Sub-Heading 9503 of the Central Excise Tariff which were fully exempted. Scrabble typically operates with some alphabet which have to be arranged with best results against a competitor. Scrabble literally means "to grope frantically". The Supreme

Court has gone into the different meanings of puzzle, toy and game and has come to the conclusion that two main elements of scrabble are chance and skill. These elements are absent in a toy. Hence even a 'junior scrabble' is also not an educational toy. It is a game and is therefore, classifiable under Item 95.04.

My first memory of classification of toys takes me more than four decades back when I got an imported consignment of some items which were made of soft plastic that would make appropriate sound like a duck or bird or goat, etc., There were also pictures of these animals on the plastic items. I had to classify them either as toys which attracted duty at that time or educational aid which were free. I remember to have had many interesting discussions with my colleagues who used to visit my room and instinctively fiddle with the samples of these goods on my table.

On this issue even my senior took great interest in discussing the probabilities.

Ultimately we classified them as toys because we held that the children who were playing with them would have taken them as toys only and they were too young to distinguish between the animals whose pictures were on these toys.

Next import of toys that I remember was of small little binoculars. The question was whether they were toys where the duty was low or whether they were regular binoculars where duty was high and licence was difficult to obtain. These small binoculars did serve the purpose of seeing things bigger if they were at a short distance. In a theatre house or in a football match they could be used to see the players.

But they were not meant for seeing things at a greater distance which normally binoculars are used for. I classified them as toys because such things are not known or sold in the market as binoculars. They are usually given to children as toys. Unknowingly I used the theory of market parlance because at that early stage in our life in Customs we had not developed the bad habit of reading judgements.


First Published: Mon, December 07 2009. 00:06 IST